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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Betsy In Informational Overload

After looking at picture book biographies that are comparable to what I’d like to do with  Pete Seeger, I dive into research.  First goal: an overview of Seeger’s life.  I read How Can I Keep From Singing, a biography by David King Dunaway. It came out in 1991, so it’s missing the last couple of decades, but it’s useful anyway. Then I devour everything I can written by Seeger. I’m looking for little stories, gems, things that make my socks roll up and down. Seeger often has great info in the liner notes of his CDs, very quotable stuff.

I jump to reading bios and autobiographies on related people: musicians Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, Pete’s father Charles Seeger (big influence), and playwright Arthur Miller (indicted by HUAC along with Seeger).  I’m trying to triangulate, understand Pete Seeger’s life and times not just from his pov, but from others’ as well.

I’m sniffing around all this time for good primary source materials. I’ll go to great lengths to find primary sources. Working on my Lennon book, I tracked down an article Yoko Ono wrote about herself in the Japanese magazine, Bungei Shunju, and had it translated into English. Totally worth the time and money. I’d read in secondary sources that Yoko was suicidal, but I didn’t want to repeat something that incendiary if it wasn’t true. When I read Yoko’s account of her depression and nighttime trips to her 11th floor window and being pulled back by her then-husband, I was free to weave it into my text.

Usually it’s not that intense, but it’s often a wonderful quotation, or a really great factoid that would otherwise be overlooked. Like the inspiring banjo player Seeger saw in 1936, Samantha Baumgartner, whose first banjo was a gourd with a cat skin stretched over it. What kid wouldn’t love being freaked out by that?

I’m also listening to the songs Seeger’s recorded… and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. Partly it gets me into his life in the emotional way songs slip under your skin, and partly I’m looking for the songs I can use on different spreads. I’ve only got the room and permissions money for a few songs. Which ones will pack a punch?

I’m having a blast. I love to research. I love all these ideas running around in my head, without the responsibility yet of writing them down, word by word.

 I’m also getting a massive information-overload headache. I know for a picture book I don’t have room for all the delicious details I could put in a long book. So every night I go to bed and ask myself, what is the emotional core I’m looking for here? What thin slices of Seeger’s rich life would make this a fascinating, resonant book?


  1. Chris Barton says:

    Betsy, for a picture book, how much interviewing do you expect to do, compared to your longer biographies? And do you expect that the emotional core you settle on will determine which interviews you pursue, or do you expect that interviews will be necessary to help you identify that emotional core in the first place?

    Chris Barton
    Blogger at Bartography, and YA biographer of Pete’s pal Alan Lomax

  2. Betsy Partridge says:

    Good question, Chris.
    I was hoping to interview Pete Seeger. I sent him a letter asking if he’d meet with me, and he wrote back, saying he’s really busy right now, could we do it in a year or two? You gotta love that kind of optimism in a man in his late eighties! But I do have a taped two hour interview I did with him when I was writing my book on Woody Guthrie. The tape is sitting on my desk, and I’m kind of saving it. I remember he spoke about himself as well, and I’m hoping there is something special in there I’ll be able to use.
    I may also query Pete again — it’s been over a year since I asked (when I first discussed the idea with Jill) so perhaps he’ll have time. I’ll also have more specific questions. And I don’t want to get anything wrong. Pete went over my Woody manuscript with a red pen, making changes, then finally wrote in the margin “Elizabeth, call me!” when he really disagreed with my portrayal of Lead Belly. I really, really appreciated it.

  3. Betsy Partridge says:

    Chris, how did you decide about interviews for your book on alan Lomax?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Betsy and I were talking about the problem of context — the same issue that Jim Giblin mentioned for the McCarthy book he is writing. I almost wish that, when a group of us writes about a similar period (I’m also working on McCarthy) we could somehow assign bits of the context to each book, so that, together, they tell the full story. That way we could each do a part close to our book well, rather than having to repeat a precis of the same general information in each book.

  5. Chris Barton says:

    Betsy, I’m still deciding! Given the breadth and extensive documentation of Lomax’s career, I’m still taking my first rough cut at the emotional core of my story, based primarily on letters, recordings, and other materials that I’ve had access to. Once I’ve got a pretty good idea of the shape of the story I think I’m telling (geez, am I qualifying this enough?), I’ll have a much better sense of who I need to speak with in order to flesh out the details, fill in the gaps, and set me straight.

  6. Chris Barton says:

    Marc and Betsy, the context of McCarthyism is something I’ve been very curious about with regard to the Pete Seeger picture book. In that limited space, how much context could be conveyed, and how much would have to be conveyed, in order to address the Peekskill riots in 1949 or Seeger’s stand against the HUAC?